Hay shortage forces producers to search for solutions

Farm Forum

With hay cupboards nearly bare across the country, area producers are searching for solutions to deal with the shortage.

According to the annual crop production reports released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. production of all dry hay in 2012 was estimated at 120 million tons, down 9 percent from 2011 and the lowest production level since 1964. South Dakota produced 4 million tons last year, a decrease of 53 percent compared to the previous year.

As of Dec. 1, 2012, all hay stored on U.S. farms totaled 76.5 million tons, down 16 percent from the year before and the lowest level since 1957. South Dakota’s hay stocks sat at 4.3 million, a decrease of 49 percent compared to the same time in 2011.

Larry Wagner, SDSU Extension agronomy crops field specialist, said it’s difficult to quantify the hay supply in southeastern South Dakota, but the area is certainly seeing a shortage like the rest of the state.

“It basically started last summer when the pastures

started giving out and some people had to start feeding early in the fall,” he said. “It’s almost like adding a month or two to a winter feeding program.”

Wagner said that the combination of the early feeding and a poor growing season last year caused by the drought depleted hay supplies in the area. He also speculated that the hay shortage in Texas two years ago could have contributed to the lower amount.

“The drought hit there a year or so before us,” he said. “There was a pretty good price for hay, and people might have sold some of what they had on hand and shorted the carryover of surplus hay.”

As hay supplies have gone down, prices have increased.

“It’s going to be costly bringing it in from other parts of the country,” Wagner said. “You look at the markets, and it’s as much as $300 per ton for good alfalfa hay. It wasn’t long ago you could get that for $150 or $175. Now, it’s quite expensive.”

Wagner said many area beef cattle producers have been able to manage the shortage this winter by utilizing other crops left over from last summer.

“There was a lot of corn that wasn’t doing well, and that all got harvested for silage and chopped for forages,” he said. “So there’s quite a bit of that out there, and they’re living off that.”

Many cattle owners also sold off part of their herds last year in anticipation of the low feed supplies.

“They’re pretty sharp on what they need to have,” Wagner said. “They knew what they had and that hay was short across the country, so they knew it wouldn’t be profitable to keep too many cattle around. They cut back to where they knew they could manage with what they had.”

While liquidating herds will be an option again this year, Wagner said producers can only take that strategy so far.

“If they want to stay in the cattle business, they need to be feeding cattle,” he said. “They’re not going to cull back too much. They just can’t.”

One solution many farmers are contemplating is the use of alternative crops.

“There’s a lot of talk about trying to get some early forage crops in – peas and oats, things like that – that come in early,” Wagner said. “If the dryness persists, they can get some forage out of there.”

However, that isn’t an option for everyone.

“The beef people can kind of get by on less quality, so they can produce all the optional crops,” Wagner said. “I think the concern in South Dakota will be the dairies. Those people rely on high-quality feed.”

In the absence of alfalfa, generally thought of as the best milk-producing hay, dairy producers likely will look for alternative feeds high in protein, Wagner said. Some dairies might also try to reduce operations until more alfalfa hay becomes available, he said.

“They will look at their budgets and look at how far they can go and still stay profitable for a short time,” he said. “They just won’t get a lot of production, but if they can hold fair production with fair costs, they can get by.”

Whatever solutions area livestock producers use to deal with the hay shortage, Wagner said he believes they will persevere, just as they always have.

“The people in South Dakota are pretty resilient,” he said. “They’re pretty good at handling this because it’s not a new thing to them. They’ve had lean years in these feeding situations, and they typically do pretty well. I don’t see them just quitting. They’ll make it work.”